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A week ago Saturday, I came back from my Utah trip to find the Bitterroot
Valley in one of its coldest snaps of the season.  We actually set a new
minimum for the season of -5.8 degrees F on the house thermometer.  There
had been some nice snowfall at Lost Trail while I was gone (more than 18
inches) and Derek reported great skiing on the hill.  We even had a modest
(~4 inch) snowfall in the valley, bringing the total snow depth to about 8
inches.  This is about on par with the deepest valley accumulations weve
seen in our four winters in the Bitterroot.  The snow was very dry, and it
was even getting tough for Ty to walk around as he tried to track up the
yard (since he would sink up to his knees).  That Monday, the temperature
began to warm, and the snow became wet enough to stick together.  We built a
huge snowman that evening, which turned out to be our sole window of
opportunity for such an endeavor.  Rain, warmth, and strong winds soon came
in, and by midnight, our huge snowman had toppled over into a pile of wet
snow.  Our entire 8 inches of accumulated snow turned to slush over the
course of a few hours, and by morning, a two foot pile of snow from our
snowman was all that remained to remind us that wed ever even had snow in
the yard.  I was simply amazed at how fast the snow disappeared.  I guess it
was due to the snow being so light and airy; it just didnt have a lot of
staying power.

The temperature stayed warm during the week, and freezing levels rose to the
tops of the highest peaks.  Even the Lost Trail area at 7,000-8,000 feet saw
temperatures get as high as 40 degrees F.  Although there didnt appear to
be any major melting, the snow was certainly softened up and consolidated.
At least they reported 3 new inches of snow on Thursday, which would have
helped to freshen up the snow surface.  In the valley, it felt like spring,
with temperatures into the 50s F.  It was quite a contrast from the single
digits just a few days earlier.

Since there was no significant powder to explore at Lost Trail, we decided
to do a little downhill skiing on the Bunny Hill with Ty, and then head over
for some cross country skiing at Chief Joseph.  Weve heard great things
about the cross country trail network up at Chief Joseph Pass, but since we
spend most days downhill skiing at Lost Trail, it was hard to find time to
visit.  We hadnt brought our cross country gear out from Vermont either,
but since E had recently picked up some $5 cross country skis and boots at a
garage sale, this seemed like the perfect time to put them to use.

Skiing at Lost Trail with Ty was a lot of fun.  Although there was some fog
around in the Hamilton area, up on the hill it was mostly sunny and in the
mid 30s F.  We knew we wouldnt have to worry about Ty getting cold.  The
snow surface on the Bunny Hill was nice packed powder, so it seemed that the
warm temperatures hadnt done too much harm, at least for the groomed
slopes.  We met up with Lisa, as well as Andy and Chad who were out on their
snowboards for the day.  Andy took a couple of runs with us on the bunny
hill while he warmed up, and then he and Chad headed off for the chairlifts.
  Andy did say that some of the steeper groomed slopes were a bit icy, so
obviously some slopes were not in their usual shape after the warm spell.  I
learned something new about the Bunny Hill rope tow on Saturday.  I was
watching the ski and snowboard instructors all ride up the rope tow with
their skis or boards perpendicular to the direction of travel.  I thought
that they were just having fun, but actually, they said they did this to
smooth down the tow path and remove the ruts that like to form.  I think
this is a great idea.  Ive only noticed the ruts being a problem when Im
on my snowboard, but I can imagine they make the tow ride difficult for any
beginner that is still new to skiing or snowboarding.  Ty was good for about
5 or 6 runs, in which we worked on letting him support more of his own
weight.  Hes still uncomfortable with the H-bar, so were working with him
between our legs.  During the ride up the rope tow, I hold him by the handle
on his ski lift harness and he gets in a little extra slide time during each
run.  Hopefully we can get him comfortable with the H-bar eventually,
because working with him between our legs is a lot of work.  I think we get
almost as good a workout as he does!

After we finished with the downhill skiing, we headed over to Chief Joseph
for cross country.  Lost Trail Pass (7,000) is on route 93 at the
Idaho/Montana border, but all you have to do is head about a mile east on
route 43, and you reach Chief Joseph Pass (7,264), which is roughly the
dividing line between the Bitterroot and Big Hole valleys of Montana.  Its
really convenient to have the two ski areas so close.  In our case it made
for an easy two-sport day, but its also very convenient for families or
groups in which some folks want to ski downhill, and some want to ski cross
country.  The parking area had about 20 cars, and we were able to quickly
grab a map and get ourselves oriented for our trip.

The only thing I really knew about the Chief Joseph cross county area was
that they had a fairly new warming hut that was a big hit with visitors.
You can sign up to stay in the hut overnight, which I think sleeps at least
eight people on the second floor.  From what Ive heard, groups staying in
the hut are simply responsible for keeping the fire and/or hot water going
at the hut during the day.  People Ive spoken to whove stayed there, say
that all the other skiers are gone by the afternoon, and then you have the
whole place to yourself.  Im not even sure if there is a charge to use the
hut beyond the maintenance responsibilities, so it seems like a great deal.

Id heard that it was a fairly easy, level ski into the hut.  So, our goal
was to simply head to the hut, have lunch, and head out.  This seemed
practical since everyone had told me it was under a mile to get to the hut.
As it turns out, the distance to the hut is only about 0.5 km.  We just
needed to take the Continental Divide (CD) trail, and wed find the hut in
the northwest corner of an open area called Picnic Meadow.  The trail was
nicely tracked, which was expected, since people had told me they have
equipment for tracking the trails.  In some places where trails came
together we found superhighways with 4 or more tracks, which made it really
easy to pass other people if needed.  Like Lost Trail Pass, the temperature
at Chief Joseph Pass had been above freezing during the week, so the snow
was a bit crusty in places.  But, the nicely tracked trails made the skiing
easy.  We found generally mellow, straight or twisting terrain through
beautiful evergreens.  Before we knew it, wed reached the hut and it was
time for lunch.

The hut really is quite nice.  It looks like they put plenty of time and
money into it, as it seems very sturdy and even has a nice metal roof.  I
dont think theyll have to replace it for a very long time.  From its
location at the northwest edge of the Picnic Meadow, it provides views to
the east toward the Big Hole Valley and the Pioneer Mountains.  They had
nice racks outside for our skis, and plenty of seating inside for us to
enjoy lunch.  Wed brought sandwiches and a thermos of hot tomato soup (one
of Tys favorites) for our meal.  Ty ate a lot of soup and made a pretty
good mess of himself, but it was worth it just get some pictures.  There was
a cross country ski lesson taking place at some point, so there was some
hustle and bustle outside the hut for a bit.  Other than that though, the
hut was pretty deserted and quiet.

After lunch it was a quick trip back to the car, where we dropped some money
in the donation slot for the Bitterroot cross country ski club.  From what I
could tell, the skiing is technically free, but they do have a sign that
says something to the equivalent of Your donations mean tracks.
Obviously, tracking the trails takes some time and money, but it was
certainly worth a few dollars to have such nicely manicured terrain
(especially when the snow was a bit crusty).  So, overall I think Ty had a
great time outside on his 2nd birthday (at least he seemed happy).  In my
opinion, its nice to have a January birthday, since youre almost
guaranteed to have some sort of skiing if you want it.  Im not sure, but
this may have been the first time Ive been to both downhill and cross
country ski areas in the same day.  If not, its certainly been a long time.
  Actually, I think the Chief Joseph area would be a great place for hiking
(or maybe even mountain biking) in the summer.  Ill have to see what goes
on there in the off season.

A few pictures from the day are available at:

http://www.jandeproductions.com/2005/22JAN05.html

J.Spin

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